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Two disappointing crime stories

I’ve always been able to rely on Ruth Rendell in the past when I wanted a good crime yarn on audio; one that wasn’t too complicated that I lost attention on my driving and was rather topical. But its clear that the early novels in the series that feature her ace detective Chief Inspector Wexford and his  work in Kingsmarkham area were as skilful accomplished as the later titles.

Wolf to the Slaughter is the third in the series.  I’m so glad that I read many of the later titles before this one because if this had been my first experience of the series, I wouldn’t have gone back for me.

wolf-to-the-slaughterIt’s about a woman who has vanished. She’s a bit of an odd flighty character living with her avant grade painter brother, both of them forgetful and not much use at domestic activities. Their life revolves around parties. There’s no body and as far as Wexford can discern initially no real crime. But he does have an anonymous letter which is hinting that there is something about this disappearance that warrants his attention. Off he goes with Inspector Burden and a young copper who lets his powers of observation collapse when  he falls in love with a young shop girl. There are the inevitable red herrings before Wexford comes up trumps as we know he always will.

It might sound ok but it was really missing the edginess that I’ve found in her later work. This Wexford is a pale imitation of this older self and it shows. I was happy to get to the end.

undertakerI turned instead to an audio recording from another stalwart of the crime genre –  Margery Allingham – someone whose name I’ve heard for many years but never read. On the basis of More Work for the Undertaker I won’t be disturbing her again and the two books I have in print on my bookshelves can be dispensed to a charity shop. Published in 1948, this features her suave amateur detective Albert Campion who, just before he is about to take up a diplomatic post overseas, agrees to investigate the mysterious goings on at the Palinodes household. These turn into death for two people. Campion takes rooms in the household in order to identify the culprit, working alongside the official police investigation. I hate books with a lot of ‘wacky’ characters. I suppose we were meant to find these delightful in examples of eccentric English figures. I just found them tedious and the story dull. So gave it up as a bad job.

Audiobooks: Ruth Rendell; Kim Deveraux, Arnaldur Indriðason #Britishcrime #Nordiccrime

Harm Done by Ruth Rendell

harmdoneRendell can always be relied upon for a meticulously plotted crime within the context of a contemporary social issue. Harm Done is no exception. It finds Chief inspector Wexford  confronted by three crimes – the abduction of two young girls by an odd couple who make the girls do their housework; mob violence targeted at a child molester recently released from prison and the disappearance of a three-year-old girl. Other novelists would have somehow connected these crimes, often in a highly implausible way but Rendell is too canny a writer to take that predictable approach. Instead she opts for  thematic linkage by showing that beneath the idyllic façade that Kingsmarkham shows to the world is a darker world of abuse towards women. 

Rendell’s tendency to contextualise her crime with current social issues is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work. No Harm shows us the perspective of the victims of domestic violence, their children and the people who try to help by running refuges and helplines.  It pushes the Inspector to confront his assumptions about abuse and to learn more from the one member of his family who has hands-on knowledge, his daughter who works at one of the women’s shelters.

The novel works well as an audio version.  Nigel Anthony has the right kind of edginess to his voice to make Wexford’s sometimes irascible temper believable.  

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason

silenceofthegrave-1I’m indebted to Sarah at HardBooksHabit for introducing me to Indridasonand his Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series. Her review of  Jar City got me scurrying in search of anything in our library service catalogue that featured Detective Inspector Erlendur and his team. Silence of the Grave , translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder is book number 4 in the series.

This finds Erlendur called in when a skeleton is discovered half-buried in a construction site outside of Reykjavík. As archaeologists unearth the body inch by inch  Erlendur’s team painstakingly try to piece together the history of families who might have lived  in the area decades earlier. They are not sure even if they’re dealing with the victim of a murder or a simple case of a missing person who got lost in one of Iceland’s winter storms.Few people are alive who can help him unravel this cold case and even those who are, seem reluctant to tell the truth.

Compounding the problem is that, like many other fictional detectives Erlendur has a troubled personal life which threatens to erupt at the most incovenient moment.  When his estranged daughter makes a dramatic call for his help  Erlendur desperately goes in search of her through the streets of Reykjavik,  questioning drug addicts and previous known associates to understand how she has ended up in a coma from which she may never recover.   As Erlendur struggles to hold together the crumbling fragments of his family, his case unearths many other tales of family pain in the hills around Reykjaik: of domestic violence; family shame and loyalty.

This was a highly satisfying read; well paced with plenty of red herrings and false trails to keep me guessing plus of course it had the benefit of a strong sense of the Icelandic mentality and landscape. I also liked the fact this was constructed as a dual narrative – in parallel with the detection story we also have a dreadful, yet engrossing back story of a woman trapped by domestic abuse.

Well worth reading/listening to. I shall be on the look out for more of this series soon.

Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux

rembrandtThis is Deveraux’s debut novel. Like  Tracy Chevalier’s hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring  Rembrandt’s Mirror features a servant girl who enters the home of a leading Dutch painter and becomes their muse. The girl in question here is Henrickje, a young and innocent lass brought up in a strict Calvinist home in the provinces. Entering Rembrandt’s house (which also operates as his studio), she is shocked by his unconventionality and his carnal goings on with another servant. But she can’t stop herself watching  – or imagining – and gradually she is drawn closer and closer into his world.

This is  a novel set during Rembrandt’s later years which were marked by personal tragedy and financial difficulties. His adored wife Saskia who was a model for many of his paintings has died and he is struggling to regain his artistic inspiration. His housekeeper Geertje becomes his lover but Rembrandt finds her rather too much of a handful and sends her packing. It proves rather a costly move since she sues him for breach of promise and wins. But Geertje’s departure paves the way for the relationship between Henrickje and Rembrandt to flourish.   I should add here that this novel is based on fact – these three women did exist and were key figures in Rembrandt’s life.

Naturally the novel is steeped in Rembrandt’s art with each chapter named after one of his paintings and several passages which give us a window into Rembrandt’s way of working.

If I’d been reading a print version, I could have looked up the paintings as they were introduced but it was impossible to do that with an audio version that I listened to while on the treadmill. Another problem I experienced was that the narrative point of view switched between Rembrandt and Henrickje but because I heard only one voice coming through my headphones I was often tripped up  by the changes. That wouldn’t have happened with a print or electronic version of course. Overall I enjoyed this and I learned something new about Rembrandt. If it interests you I recommend you skip the audio option.

 

 

Is audio the future?

Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.

Remember the days of these?

Remember the days of these?

The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded  onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.

The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that  famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration.  In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman. 

I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week.  Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.

I’ve learned a few things over the years.

One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.

Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.

Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.

Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.

I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?

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